DUCK SOUP: Dinosaur Juice

Sinclair Oil adopted a cartoon brontosaurus as it's mascot a few decades ago and popularized the idea that petroleum is composed of dead thunder lizards. There is a great deal more significance in that simple notion than most folks bother to note, and the implications are profound.Of course, oil is not simply dinosaur juice. It is equally an agglomeration of giant ferns and tree club mosses, dragonflies and cockroaches, trilobites and fish and sharks and squids, bacteria, algae and slime molds. The essential concept is that petroleum is a chemical cocktail of complex hydrocarbons assembled by living cells accumulated over vast stretches of time. The decayed organic matter that is today the central material resource of modern culture was the result of hundreds of thousands of centuries of life on earth.Pause a moment to try to grasp that thought. Hundreds of thousands of centuries is a passage almost impossible to comprehend. Our whole story of civilization could be replayed a hundred thousand times in that space. The continents have separated and collided in their dance around the planet during those aeons. Yet it is the accumulation of photosynthesis, digestion and growth over that immense span which we call oil.Now consider that we have used most of it up in less than one hundred years. In twenty more it will be sharply dwindling. In fifty or so it will be gone as a commercially meaningful resource. By 2015 approximately 80 percent of known oil reserves will be gone and our human population will be headed toward 10 billion.But, by then we'll discover alternatives, right?For energy, yes. Solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, natural gas, hydroelectric, coal and nuclear power have the potential to fill the electric void. The first half of that list is more benign than the latter, but they will all figure in our future power supply.Replacing oil's other uses is far more problematic. As writer Thomas Berry has noted, most recently in an Environmental Leadership Center lecture at Warren Wilson College, it is extremely difficult to visualize modern Western civilization sans petroleum. Look around you: plastic, fabric, numerous pharmaceuticals, lubricants, fertilizer, pesticides, paint, tires and the roads they roll on are all petrochemical products. Alternatives to oil for non-energy uses are surprisingly scarce. Plastic from corn cobs? Fine, but the fertilizer for corn?In fact it is fertilizer that will likely demand the most sweeping changes in our habits. Natural gas derivatives can fill part of the need for plant food in the short run, but it too is limited and will be in high demand for fuel as the oil runs out.An obvious source of nutrient material is manure. Ours. But consider the enormity of the undertaking! Modern plumbing has removed us from the natural loop of plant to animal to manure to plant. Closing that cycle on a meaningful scale will entail what may be the largest public works project in history. Inventor Gerry Hawkes has suggested that the most practicable method might involve composting toilets in every dwelling with a regular collection service. This would avoid the difficulties imposed by the addition of water and chemical pollution in today's sewer systems. Such a change would require a massive amount of money and time, yet I am unaware of any government body which has even considered such an option. Some municipalities compost their sewage sludge, but the industrially toxin-laden goop is unsafe for food crops.Another obvious choice involves hemp. With lower requirements for fertilizer and pesticides than other fiber and food crops, it reduces agricultural dependence on petroleum. At the same time hempseed oil can fill many of the resource niches which are now petro-based. Politically, however, hemp has been a hard sell, and even after governments get with the program a switch in crops, processing machinery and industrial methods could take decades.The lesson that oil can teach us is simple, but non-obvious. Life comes from life. Oil is not a dead thing, it is the product of aeons of organic growth, death and rebirth. Replacements for petroleum will come from living matter as well and the pending scarcity will inestimably impact all of our lives.

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